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Cutback in troops predicted

Expectations high ahead of summit at Camp David

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will be walking a fine line this week with a high-profile, two-day summit at Camp David on Iraq.

The sessions today and tomorrow are meant to show Americans who might be anxious about the open-ended US military presence in Iraq that progress is being made. The decision to hold meetings at the compound in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains is certain to give them a stature and exposure they might not have if set at the White House.

Yet the president is working to avoid the jubilant predictions made after previous milestones that were overtaken by continued violence and halting reconstruction.

White House officials played down expectations of troop-cutback formulas or other dramatic announcements from the meetings, but the top US commander in Baghdad predicted yesterday that coalition troops would gradually move out of the country in the coming months.

General George Casey said he thinks it will be possible to withdraw some of the 130,000 US forces within months as long as Iraq's government and security forces make progress.

Casey would not say whether he plans to advise Bush on a troop reduction plan during the Camp David meetings, but the general hinted the time soon may come for such a recommendation.

``I was waiting until we got a government seated before I gave the president another recommendation so we have some sense of what we've got," Casey said on CBS's ``Face the Nation."

The reevaluation of the administration's Iraq policy will start this morning with a long day of meetings between Bush and his national security team and the military commanders in the field in Iraq. A meeting also will be held with specialists from outside the administration.

Tomorrow, Bush will hear from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq and his government ministers, who will join in the conference from Baghdad.

Among the most immediate concerns is how to buttress security operations in and around Baghdad. That could involve short-term troop increases there.

Bush asked his administration to move quickly once Maliki's government was completed to establish relationships with Iraq's ministers. Maliki filled the final three Cabinet posts last week.

The idea is to offer detailed assistance with everything from securing oil fields and pipelines, providing electricity more reliably in Baghdad, and ridding Iraqi security forces of militias that are fueling sectarian tensions.

Those are among the priorities Maliki has named for his administration. They have proved difficult achievements even more than three years after US-led forces ousted the former government of Saddam Hussein.

Maliki also has said that Iraqi forces would be capable of controlling security in all of Iraq within 18 months. Bush said last week that the Camp David meetings would seek to assess whether that assertion is realistic.

The sessions were scheduled before Wednesday's killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US airstrike and the Iraqi parliament's approval Thursday of key security officials. White House officials said the meetings would be conducted against the backdrop of how both developments may have changed things.

With only a third of Americans supporting Bush's handling of Iraq, according to AP-Ipsos polling in early June before Zarqawi's death, and some Democrats calling for US troops to leave Iraq by the end of the year, Bush is under pressure to show progress.

``Everybody views the completion of a truly unity government as a moment of opportunity," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said.

On Saturday, Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader -- speaking for Democrats in the party's weekly radio address -- called on Bush to emerge from the meetings with a concrete plan for making 2006 ``a year of significant transition" in Iraq.

``Our troops and the American people have been exceedingly patient as previous mileposts in Iraq have passed without progress. The president is asking too much if he expects us to do it again," said Reid, Democrat of Nevada. ``We need more than platitudes next week."

Bush and his aides said no detailed troop withdrawal plan was in the offing.

``This is not a meeting about drawdowns," Bartlett said. ``It's a meeting about how can we best help the Iraqis help secure their country."

Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said he believed the number of coalition forces would drop below 100,000 by year's end. He also said the majority of coalition forces would leave before mid-2008.

``The more our Iraqi security forces, our police, our army, the more they grow in number, in training and are ready and able to perform and to protect our people, then the less we need of the multinational forces," Rubaie told CNN's ``Late Edition."

Two senators, appearing after Rubaie on CNN, said they were encouraged by his timetable for foreign troops to withdraw.

Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a member of the Armed Service Committee, said he hopes it is realistic. ``We have to get our forces out," Reed said. ``Our forces are under tremendous wear and tear."

Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said the United States should hold the Iraqis to that timetable. ``That's an authoritative statement," Specter said. ``Now let's see him do it."

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